In Remembrance of Dr. Doug Watterson, Jr.

By Joe LaGuardia

We pastors realize the gravity of preaching every Sunday morning.  When we enter a pulpit, we do not enter it alone.  We stand upon the shoulders of great pastors, preachers, mentors, friends and heroes that have preceded us in declaring the Gospel of Jesus Christ.   We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, and we reflect on those who have shaped us and continue to shape our congregations.

When I was called to serve as pastor of First Baptist Church of Vero Beach, I met one such hero of the faith, Rev. Dr. Doug Watterson, who served in this pulpit in the late 1960s, only to shepherd other churches in Florida and Texas.  His last church of five years was at North Stuart Baptist Church, Florida.  After retiring from ministry altogether, Doug and his wife, Jan, came back to First Baptist Church of Vero Beach to worship.

Dr. Watterson is one of those great pastors from a generation of prophetic architects of culture.  Like others in his generation — Truett Gannon, Bill Self, Fred Craddock, John Claypool, and Peter Rhea Jones, to name a few — he is quiet and small in stature, but thunderous in his preaching against the ails of our times and the sins of racism, sexism, and injustice. His life was marked by civil rights and advocacy of women in ministry.  He rallied congregations to embody a smart faith in which salvation led to Christ-like action and unyielding love to the world beyond the church walls.

Dr. Watterson’s ministry did not start in the church, but in the trenches of war.  In World War 2, he served in the Navy.  His testimony begins with this: “I was a 19-year-old sailor boy…”

After the war, Dr. Watterson attended the Southern Baptist Seminary in Kentucky.  He went on to serve eight churches, including the First Baptist Church of Tallahassee, Florida, and Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.  He became known for race reconciliation, and his family recalls the many death threats during those cultural conflicts of the 1970s.

At Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas, Dr. Watterson’s served in the trenches again, this time against fellow Christians who claimed a segregationist battle flag.  While a famous pastor in Dallas sought to wield power in the Southern Baptist Convention with a narrow interpretation of scripture and justice, Dr. Watterson preached integration and equality in all levels of society.  Cliff Temple ordained the fourth woman, Martha Gilmore, ever to be ordained in Texas in 1977.   He served as Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention until, eventually in the early 1990s, became a cheerleader for the formation and growth of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

I am heir to Dr. Watterson’s ministry.  If it were not for pastors like him, I am not sure if I would’ve continued to be Baptist in my own ministry.  Pastors like him inspire me; and his final sermon, that of his life’s story, echos throughout my ongoing commitment to the ideals and values he embodied.

Over the last few years of his life, Dr. Watterson’s health declined with dementia.  I struggled with this personally, as I sat many times at his bed and encouraged him to tell stories of years past.

A week before he passed in March 2020, he told his wife of 68 years, Jan, that he wanted to preach one last sermon.  He wanted to let people know of the abounding and abundant love of Jesus Christ and the hope we have in him.  He and his wife held hands until his last breath.

My prayer is that, if I can be half as courageous as my friend, Doug, then I will have certainly lived life well.  I want to leave the kind of legacy on churches that he left.  I want to shape clergy who come after me as he did so others can advance the Gospel without the bigotry and misogyny that characterize too many Christians today.

When I grow up, I want my wife and I to be just like Doug and Jan: Always holding hands, always holding the line for our family, and standing in solidarity with others who come after us, preaching every last sermon as if life itself depended on it.

Four Tips for Interfaith Ministry

God calls us to be Christ’s Church together and not neglect the fellowship of believers.  Meeting as a church is fairly easy, but the real challenge is following God into a world full of diverse beliefs, opinions, and views.  

For over a decade, I have worked with people of other faiths in interfaith ministry.  Although God does not call everyone to this task, God calls all of us to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.  How do we minister to people of other faiths or no faith at all?  How might you take a step towards bold mission to reach others who don’t think or look like you?  Here are some tips:

First, reflect on God’s work in the world.  Although many Christians find the world frightening, the Holy Spirit is present in the world.   The Bible gives us an example when Paul ministers in Athens, Greece, in Acts 17:16-33. 

Paul began his mission in a familiar place, the synagogue (Acts 17:17), and then went to the public market in Athens.  Paul did not berate the beliefs of others, but complimented them on their great faith (v. 22).  He then focused on their doubts and a statue to “an unknown god”.  He took the opportunity to preach about Jesus.  Paul’s ministry was relational because he believed God was already at work among unbelievers, and he did not have an “Us vs. Them” attitude.

Second, ask God to give you a passion for people who don’t know Jesus.  Paul was “deeply distressed” (Acts 17:16) when he saw people in Athens who did not know the Lord.  His heart broke for others, and his passion drove him into the streets, even in the face of criticism (v. 18) and persecution.  Interfaith work requires unyielding patience, fervent prayer, a deep abiding trust in the Holy Spirit, and a heart for people.

Third, pray for friendships across cultural and religious lines.  Before you can stand up for your faith, spend time on your knees before God asking for opportunities to meet new people.  Humble yourself and remember that you are not called to judge others, but be an eye-witness of your personal relationship with the living God.  Pray that God will place new friends in your life that need to hear your testimony. 

Fourth, be present, seek understanding, and listen.  Many Christians ask me why I do interfaith dialogue and ministry, and my response is always the same: You cannot be the presence of Christ if you’re not present.   Being present sometimes means listening, seeking understanding, and then asking God to help you witness. Every month in Vero Beach, an interfaith group meets for lunch and facilitate dialogues to learn about one another.  I am often discouraged, however, that there are not more evangelical Christians represented.  I pray for more volunteers in this work.